Although the actual games have been overshadowed lately by the off-the-field misbehavior of some of the players, the NFL season opened last week. And if you listened closely enough, you could almost hear HR managers and small business owners across the country yelling at their employees, “Get off your fantasy football website and get back to work!”
Like college basketball’s March Madness, fantasy football’s massive popularity arises in large part from the fact that it gives zealots and non-enthusiasts alike a chance to “get in on the action,” and not just enjoy a sporting event but also win bragging rights over all of their friends. Indeed, anyone who has ever participated in either endeavor is sure to have bitter memories of losing the NCAA pool to someone who picked teams based on uniform colors or mascot cuteness, or losing a fantasy football championship to someone who couldn’t pronounce Tim Biakabatuka’s name if his life depended on it. Let’s just say, there is a certain amount of luck involved (except when I win).
In any event, what does this have to do with workplaces, and in particular, YOUR workplace? A lot. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global employment consulting firm, recently estimated that employers worldwide suffer $13.4 billion per year in lost productivity due to fantasy football. In other words, employers these days no longer worry about their workplace becoming a modern-day “Peyton Place.” Instead, they worry about their employees wasting valuable work time trying to guess whether Peyton Manning will throw his customary three touchdown passes this week.
What can employers do about it? Some businesses block fantasy football websites from their employees’ computers, but with everyone carrying a smartphone in their pocket these days, that’s kind of like going for a field goal when you’re down by 28 points in the fourth quarter. Of course, employers can hardly ban their employees from participating in fantasy leagues altogether; not only is it impractical, but most employees do save their fantasy sports obsession for after work, and some states have statutes forbidding employers from taking adverse action against employees for engaging in lawful activities on their own time.
The answer is actually deceptively simple, like benching your quarterback when he’s playing on the road against the Seahawks. Just remind your employees about, and continue to enforce, your existing practices and policies about workers devoting their time and energy–during working hours–to their jobs. The issue is really no different from the employee who spends all day scanning Facebook or looking for deals on Craigslist. Or for that matter, playing solitaire on his computer or engaging in personal telephone calls. Any of this conduct, if it rises to an inappropriately high level, more than likely violates company policy and therefore warrants corrective action by the employer.
And don’t forget, distractions like NCAA office pools and fantasy football leagues, if handled appropriately, can actually be positive factors in the workplace. What better way for employees to get to know each other than talking trash about their teams and debating age-old questions like “If I bench my kicker because he’s playing in a snowstorm in Lambeau Field, am I being incredibly clever, or am I over-thinking my way to the consolation bracket?” (From personal experience, I can tell you it’s the latter. Curse you, Mason Crosby, circa 2009.) Just be sure that the league doesn’t intentionally or inadvertently exclude certain employees, for example, along the lines of gender. “He got more face time with the boss because of the office fantasy football league, and therefore he got the promotion” could well show up in a discrimination lawsuit in your company’s future; it has already shown up in some cases across the country.
Bottom line, fantasy football leagues can be fun team-building events for your workplace, but like all things HR-related, they must be monitored closely. And when problems arise, don’t be afraid to call a time out or throw a penalty flag, or your employees’ fantasy may become your company’s worst nightmare.